TEAMtalk analyses Louis van Gaal’s leadership of Manchester United at Stoke as the manager clings on to his job at Old Trafford.
The headline news surrounded the benching of skipper Wayne Rooney, who finally lost his captain’s privileges after his dreadful run of form. The last act of a desperate man?
Only the armband has kept Rooney in the team over recent months, with the England record goalscorer failing to perform as the lead striker or in the No.10 role. Many fans have been crying out for Rooney’s exclusion over recent months and Van Gaal finally granted them their wish.
In his place came fans’ favourite Ander Herrera but the Spaniard was employed in a deeper role alongside Michael Carrick, with Marouane Fellaini picked as the closest man to lone striker Anthony Martial.
Van Gaal’s trust in Fellaini seemingly remains unshaken, despite the Belgian doing little to deserve such faith. It is difficult to identify what the bushy-haired midfielder offers United other than height at set pieces. He lacks the mobility, creativity and composure to play at the base of the midfield or behind the front man.
Morgan Schneiderin remained on the bench and Herrera pinned next to Carrick as Fellaini failed to provide any support to Martial.
1 – Manchester United have lost just one of 15 games with Morgan Schneiderlin starting and five of 11 without him. Onlooker.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2015
United competed with Stoke in the opening exchanges as strong winds played havoc at the Britannia, with Herrera’s drive from distance testing Jack Butland. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the hosts adjusted to the conditions quickest before making their dominance pay in devastating fashion.
The opening goal summed up Van Gaal’s United of late. Memphis Depay embarrassed himself with a back header that was woefully wrong in choice and execution. The Red Devils got numbers back behind the ball but Bojan was still able to control Glen Johnson’s pull-back in the centre of the box before poking through the legs of Phil Jones on the goal-line.
United failed to respond and found themselves 2-0 down thanks to a stunning strike from Marco Arnautovic, though Depay’s attempt to get a block on the shot was half-hearted at best.
Arnautovic then wasted a glorious opportunity to put Stoke 3-0 ahead before United enjoyed some possession before half-time. Typically, though, they created nothing with it.
That's right up there with the worst 1st half performances I've seen, live at least, from a #MUFC team. Can only get better in 2nd half?!
— James Ducker (@DuckerTheTimes) December 26, 2015
United again enjoyed some time on the ball after the break, though that may be as much to do with Stoke taking their foot off the pedal as any increase in urgency from Van Gaal’s side. Again, they lacked any potency, despite Rooney’s introduction. The Potters remained a threat on the break and United faded as another defeat became inevitable.
Van Gaal’s changes have often baffled United fans, but the obvious substitution was made at the break: Rooney for Depay.
Rooney was tasked with leading the line, with Martial shunted out to the left once more. The Frenchman could not possibly be anymore isolated than he was in the first half, but Fellaini somehow retained his position off the front man.
Rooney created United’s best opening on 64 minutes after a more industrious start to the second half but Fellaini side-footed a simple chance straight at Butland, allowing the Stoke keeper to make a save when he should never have been given the opportunity.
Herrera was hooked with eight minutes remaining in favour of youngster Andreas Perriera but it was a token move with the game long gone.
Reaction from the sidelines:
Van Gaal rarely leaves his seat on the bench and despite the stakes, he saw no need to change his behaviour. The Dutchman sat leaning on his dossier, remaining passive as his side toiled, with Stoke’s first-half goals being greeted by nothing but stony faces from the manager and his two assistants.
Ryan Giggs is either implicated in Van Gaal’s failure or irrelevant – neither shows the United legend in a positive light – but he was consulted by Van Gaal over half-time alterations as the coaching staff made their way to the dressing room at half-time.
The away supporters attempted to rally the players with cries of ‘United, United, United’ upon the half-time whistle but support for Van Gaal as he made his way past them on the way to the tunnel was rather less forthcoming. Many gave their manager the silent treatment but a few failed to keep a lid on their frustration.
Van Gaal remained motionless during the second half as United at least competed, while Giggs slumped deeper into his chair, using his coat to mask his embarrassment.
The United players and staff again left the arena with cries of ‘United, United, United’ ringing in their ears, but the visiting support’s defiance was more out of a sense of duty rather than any belief.
Fight or flight from his players?
United fans were looking to see whether the players would fight for their manager. The answer did not reflect well on the van Gaal.
Stoke’s emphasis on graft and work-rate has become a cliche over recent years but despite the Potters becoming easier on the eye under Mark Hughes, their industry still underpins their approach. Any visitors to the Britanna must first match their hosts’ desire, especially on a day when the conditions demand a faultless attitude.
When Stoke turned the screw after the opening exchanges, the United players failed to step up. Their lack of confidence is perhaps understandable but too many of Van Gaal’s players shrank when their application was tested.
Rooney’s frustration was obvious and the skipper at least offered some bite after coming on. Whether his aggression was borne of frustration with his side’s performance or his personal embarrassment at being dropped, we will never know.
Van Gaal at least drew a more combative performance from his players in the second half but again their increased possession yielded minimal return. Too little, too late from the men in black, who should all look at their contribution to Van Gaal’s downfall.
Captain for the day, Michael Carrick, appeared shellshocked during his interview immediately after the final whistle and could not hide his befuddlement at United’s struggles. “of course”, was his answer when he was asked if Van Gaal is still the right man but his response possessed all the conviction of United’s recent attacking play.
4 – Man Utd have lost four competitive matches in a row within a single season for the first time since October-November 1961. Assassinated
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2015
Prior to kick-off, van Gaal was said to have two games to save his job. It’s difficult to see what encouragement Ed Woodward and the United board may have expected, but they certainly will not have found it at the Britannia. Van Gaal’s time appears up.
The Dutchman was the right man for the job and he achieved the objectives he was set during his first season. But United currently look bereft of belief and their spark can only be rediscovered by a change of manager.
Jose Mourinho’s recent availability has come at the worst possible time for Van Gaal. If Mourinho remained at Chelsea, who else could United turn to? But the clamour for the former Real Madrid manager is likely to be too strong for the board to ignore.
Van Gaal is certainly not the only man culpable here. The players, almost without exception must examine their own contribution, as do the members of the board. With the present leadership in place above Van Gaal, some may argue that the manager is not the club’s greatest problem. But he is the easiest to solve in the short-term.
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) December 26, 2015